Coming of Age
Parashat Vayishlach contains particularly dramatic moments for our patriarch Jacob. Married twice and now blessed with eleven children, Jacob receives word that his brother Esau is approaching with four hundred troops. Jacob cannot know what Esau’s intentions will be. The last time that Jacob saw Esau, Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him a blessing that had been reserved for Esau. Following that fateful moment, Esau promised that he would kill Jacob the next time the two met.
Fearing the worst, Jacob takes his wives, maid-servants, and children across the River Jabbok. Left alone, he wrestles with an unknown figure until daybreak, an encounter that leaves both the socket of his hip strained and Jacob himself blessed with the new name of Israel. Commentators offer a variety of intriguing questions regarding this “unknown figure.” Does Jacob wrestle with himself, with another human being, or is he actually wrestling an angel or God directly?
We may never know the answer to this question, but what we do know is that Jacob appears changed. Until now, Jacob has fled from destination to destination, has promised that he will believe in God only when God guides him back to the land of his forefathers, and has been duped time and time again by Laban. But as Esau approaches, Jacob appears, for the first time, to accept responsibility for his own actions and for the lives of others. He shows concern for his children, dividing them between Rachel and Leah and the two maid-servants. And then he steps forward, bowing respectfully in the presence of his brother. Jacob offers Esau gifts and presents, and acknowledges that God has given him many blessings, including his children. Our ancient sages believed that every word in the Torah was connected to the words and stories that came before and after. They called this concept s’muchin. Being that Jacob wrestles with a mysterious figure on the banks of the River Jabbok just prior to achieving reconciliation with Esau, we are safe to assume that the occasion of the struggle leads directly into the healing of the brothers’ relationship.
In our own lives, true personal growth comes when we are willing to struggle with the events of our lives, to question ourselves, to feel doubt and anxiety, and to wonder about the presence of God in our midst. When we stand idly and allow life to pass us by, our lives remain stagnant and monotonous. The process of leading a reflective, introspective life helps us to grow. Such a task is incumbent upon the people of Israel, for the name Israel (Yisrael in Hebrew) means “one who wrestles with God.” And when we emerge from our soul-searching more aware of our surroundings, more cognizant of the needs of other people, and more convinced of the importance of introspection, we will, like Jacob, truly have come of age.